Winifred Wells: Our First Lady

Rider Profile

Ready for the big trip: Winifred Wells outside her Perth home on Boxing Day, 1951.

Solo back-to-back transcontinental rides put Winifred Wells on the map but her full circuit of Australia confirmed her eminence among our moto pioneers.

“When I was eleven years old I stood in the kitchen and said ‘I want a motorbike’. Of course my parents laughed and said ‘later dear’ but I knew what I wanted.” Hence by the time Winifred Wells, daughter of a furniture manufacturer from Shenton Park, Perth, was old enough to obtain a riders licence, much to her parents’ consternation she’d also acquired a 250 BSA, and twelve months later, she used that same determination on the committee of the local MCC.

“I got thrown off the bike when a chap threw a ‘Uey’ in front of me and I went flying. I realised I need to learn more about riding so I went to join the local club. And they didn’t want me. Didn’t want a woman. Typical male chauvinism!” Inevitably Winifred convinced them otherwise, moved up to a 350cc Triumph Tiger 80 and was soon a regular on club rides; and at the habitual club bull sessions.

Not just a pretty face. Winnie practicing her scrambling skills in Perth.

“We used to toss things around.” recalls Winifred “you know how bike riders are, all have different opinions. You couldn’t ride across the Nullarbor, you’d blow the bike up. No you wouldn’t, yes you would. Backwards, forwards blah, blah, blah.”

“Now Carlyle and Co were electrical people but they had the Enfield agency in Perth. The owner Carl Cohen knew Matchless and Norton were much more favoured machines but he was very approachable and, as a businessman, he could see the merit in my proposal to ride an Enfield across the Nullarbor.”

Possibly all Carl Cohen could see was a very determined and very pretty blue-eyed young lady and though he sponsored the undertaking to the tune of twenty five quid, he was businessman enough to sign Winifred up on the never-never – the Royal Enfield Bullet 350 would only become hers after she’d made the final payment. In fact Winifred had to obtain permission from the financier IAG to take the bike out of the state.

Her journey began on Boxing Day, when she set out from Perth at noon having loaded her 350cc Enfield “Bullet” with provisions and spare clothing in two pannier bags and a carrier-borne suitcase. In her pocket was £25 which was all that she allowed herself for her three week holiday. She wore riding boots, fawn breeches, a blue sweater, leather jacket and an old tweed cap. It being high summer in Australia there was no need for waterproofs—on the contrary, most of the journey was done under conditions of scorching heat.

“I was full of myself as you are at 22” admits Winifred “but I was going to ride to Sydney and then ride back”. Fellow club members couldn’t dissuade her by predicting the ‘white metal bearings’ would self destruct or that she’d perish on the Nullarbor. Her first day’s run took her to the small town of Southern Cross and on the following morning she began the most grueling part of her itinerary, the crossing of the Nullarbor Plain. The township of Norseman was reached safely but the following night found her out in the blue with human habitation nowhere nearer than at least a hundred miles. She had intended to reach Eucla, but a skid on loose gravel had shaken her somewhat and she did not feel fit enough to press on. “So,” she explained later, “I used my bike groundsheet to rig a shelter in the bush. It was the loneliest hole you ever saw.”

Even a bad fall on the second day out didn’t deter her. “I was haring down these terrible corrugations and had the biggest spill you could imagine, a full locker and high side that sent me sprawling.”

“It was near Spargoville, one of those small mining settlements that had sprung up in the goldfields, and a motorist tried to convince me to return to Perth. He was quite distressed because I’d wiped the side of my face off and cracked my head. I’d also done a bit of damage to the bike but the garage in Norseman gave me a bit of a hand with the bike and that was that.”

Throughout the transcontinental crossing Winifred carried all before her, none more so than George Bolton, Adelaide’s Royal Enfield distributor who wrote on her return journey. ‘Winifred left carrying our best wishes and prayers that she would get through safely. When she left Adelaide the temperature was 105 degrees and rising, and our hopes are high that this gallant little soul will win out’. As if there was any doubt.

Back in Perth after 5,500 mile in 21 days, Winnie received a hero’s welcome.

After 5,500 miles covered in 21 days, Winifred was back where she started. On return to Perth Winifred was congratulated by the Lord Mayor Joe Totterdell and whilst the press stuck to the basics, the popular ‘People’ magazine reported: ‘For days on end Winifred averaged no more than one meal a day and her normal weight of 7st 13lb dropped a few pounds. The blue-eyed, small-faced young woman is 5ft 5in tall, has a trim, well shaped figure, good legs and wiry wrists. Her stay in Sydney lasted only from Friday night to the following Sunday morning, but in that time she ‘took in’ most of the sights including King’s Cross and nearby beauty spots in the luxury of a friend’s car whilst wearing a smart dress and high heels. Few overlanders who had seen her ‘on the track’ only days before would have recognized the healthy well-turned-out young woman.’

Winifred declared she’d had enough of the dust but continued to ride regularly on the Bullet, for which Royal Enfield distributors around Australia had chipped for a presentation to acknowledge her feat – along with some fancy silverware; both from home and the Enfield H.Q in Britain.

“It didn’t take long before I was keen to travel again” says Winifred “ this time around Australia, but my father said ‘You’re not going alone.’ Just as well too, It’s very different country up north.”

George, who’d been a motorcyclist since 1910, and had owned an eclectic list of machines including an Indian outfit, a Rudge and an Ivory Calthorpe, was quite aware of how headstrong his daughter was. He was also aware he’d only be able to match Winnie’s skills in the most technical country. But most importantly, because he’d spent some time working the Kimberly Coast as a marine engineer; he knew how ‘different’ it could be in the tropics.

It was only natural that Winifred would score a new Bullet whilst George rode the venerable transcontinental veteran and, it appears, carried more than his share of the luggage – as any gentleman would.

Hoping to cross the top before the annual big wet the duo rode north from Perth on September 23, 1952 and, in order to avoid the huge haulage convoys carrying equipment up the coast road for the atomic tests on Monte Bello took the inland route. They made good headway over well-established, if not well formed, tracks until they reached Le Grange – and the dreaded Pardoo Sands.

“Neither of us could seem to find the right speed or balance” recalls Winifred “it was the first time I thought ‘I can’t do this’ It was impossible.”

And that was before one of the dust storms that regularly inhabit the Great Sandy Desert engulfed them for the best part of a day. But of course where there’s a will there’s a way and the pair ‘tonk, tonk, tonked’ their way through the sand and spinifex to Broome. George was immediately accosted and rebuked for encouraging his daughter ‘a mere slip of a girl and certainly not buxom enough’ to engage in such a folly and George was hard put to convince his well intentioned critic that Winnie was indeed “the boss”.

In almost 60 years, not a lot has changed in the outback except the mode of transportation.

Winifred remembers the six miles of bitumen on the way into Derby as sheer heaven, particularly after the trials of the ‘pindan’ country and the notorious Yeeda Crossing. She also recalls the Police in Derby being particularly officious about paperwork and demanding to know when the pair intended to leave town. At the other end of the spectrum, when the two machines rolled up to the Halls Creek Police Station – then some miles distant from the actual township – the local walloper was leaning over the front fence. By way of introduction they stated who they were. The walloper looked them over, replied ‘I know’, turned and re entered the Police Station.

Expecting the worst, they continued on across the Northern Territory following the Victoria and Dry Rivers – both dry – to Katherine and north to Darwin. “It was very rough” said Winifred “and I’d never seen so many scrub bulls. But nothing we encountered was anywhere near as difficult as the Pardoo Sands.”

They had intended to visit Alice Springs but the 600 – mile run down from Darwin to Tennant Creek had taken its toll on their rubber, and taking the narrow strip of bitumen heading east towards Mount Isa proved more prudent if not irresistible.

Half way through their odyssey they arrived back in civilization of sorts for a brief respite in Cairns before following the coast all the way south to Sydney. No doubt on the long, more or less, straight stretches Winifred indulged in her comfortable travelling style with both legs straddled across the petrol tank, considering that 60mph ‘was not unduly fast when the way was clear’ and that 78mph was achievable. What father George thought of these practices were never recorded.

Back in the regions where the publicity could generate sales of the Royal Enfield marque their pace slowed – not so much on the road – but simply for the photographers to practice their livelihood and reporters to rub shoulders with someone who had actually achieved something to deserve it. On her solo journey Winifred had ridden from Sydney to Perth in nine days, this time round it took nineteen; and it certainly wasn’t George whom the press wished to ogle.

In Adelaide the enthusiastic George Bolton had mounted a virtual civic reception – right outside his showrooms – and no doubt Winifred’s much publicized appearance did much to assist sales of ‘The Royal Enfield “350 Bullet” as ridden by Winifred Wells.’

Adelaide Royal Enfield agent George Bolton outside his premises with Winifred and her father, during the duo’s round-Australia run. Bolton’s was a regular and welcome stop to service the bikes.

The accolades continued in Winifred’s home town of Perth, a city already preparing for Queen Elizabeth’s visit. But Winnie, the Queen of the Desert was back, prompting one of Australia’s better known journalists to write ‘Winifred is a dyed-in-the-wool and highly competent motorcyclist, possessing that rare combination of judgment, balance, feel for an engine and road sense…she is at all times thoroughly at home in the saddle and one of two active women members of A.J.S M.C.C. of Western Australia.’

Possibly recognizing the value of such a historical machine Cal Cohen relieved Winifred of her “original Bullet” but she kept her “round Australia” mount for some years as a daily ride: but the £1000 award she was rumored to have received was no more than an urban myth. She did however acquire another bike – a J.A.P, “That’s the only time I wore a helmet and leathers. Four of us did the ‘fire hoop’ show at the speedway and that’s the only time I wore a helmet”.

Then working for a group of seismologists at a major oil exploration company Winifred was transferred to Queensland. Simultaneously a bout of pleurisy – which developed into pneumonia – forced her to forego her love of motorcycling. Little wonder then she took up flying, obtaining her private licence in Perth before graduating to a commercial licence at Archerfield. Her adventures in the air match her exploits on terra firma and culminated in navigating one of the winners in the last great Ansett Air Race around Australia.

Winifred’s aspirations of a motorcycle circuit racing career denied, she maintains an active interest in all things motorcycling, noting that Mick Doohan was the last of the greats who really looked comfortable on a bike. On the other hand Winifred’s eyes go a little dreamy when she mentions Geoff Duke on his Gilera “It was poetry in motion”. We think Winifred may have inspired a little poetry in her time too.

Wells around Australia 

Winifred and George were not out to break any records, had no predetermined schedule to follow and, where facilities became available – such as in Darwin where they had the use of the Mobil representative’s house – took the time to shake off some of the dust. Despite being in no hurry the pair set a fairly cracking pace at a daily average of almost 300 km. Departing Perth on 23 September 1952 they arrived at the following waypoints with little drama.

La Grange – 5th Oct.
Fitzroy Crossing – 7th Oct.
Darwin – 14th Oct.
Mt. Isa – 20th Oct.
Cairns – 24th Oct.
Brisbane – 3rd Nov.
Newcastle – 6th Nov.
Sydney – 7th Nov.
Melbourne – 12th Nov.
Adelaide – 17th Nov.
Ceduna – 21st Nov.
Norseman – 23rd Nov.
Kalgoorlie – 24th Nov.
Perth – 26th Nov.

They both suffered numerous punctures but no mechanical breakdowns were recorded and both machines averaged 90 mpg. In later publicity the distance covered increased miraculously to 12000 miles the journey reduced to two months and the tappets never ever needed any adjustment. All that aside there’s no doubt Winifred Wells and her father George got the job done and, on return, were met by the Right Honorable, the Lord Mayor Mr. Joe Totterdell. Joe commended them both on their meritorious performance but it was the photogenic Winnie who picked up all the silverware.

Left: At the completion of her solo ride to Sydney and back to Perth, Winifred was presented with a silver cup, air freighted from England by the Enfield Cycle Co, at the Claremont Speedway. Right: Winnie Wells today.

Where are they now?

Winifred and her two daughters are now living down on the Mornington Peninsula, however the whereabouts of either of the two Royal Enfield Bullets is unknown. Winifred has no record of the original engine/frame numbers but the registration numbers were W.A. 1118 and W.A. 14472. Perhaps an OBA reader knows of the Bullets’ whereabouts. It’s not beyond reason that Winnie might like to do another quick lap of Oz now there’s a bitumen road across the Pardoo Sands.

Story: Peter Whitaker • Photos: Winifred Wells, George Bolton Jnr, State Library of WA.

OBA Issue 24
This article first appeared in Old Bike Australasia Issue No.24